Guitar Effects Pedals Explained (How They Work & Our Favorites)

Guitar Effects Pedals Explained

When you pick up classical instruments like the trumpet, flute, or piano, even an acoustic guitar, you have everything you need to play the instrument there in your hands.

There may be a couple of tools you can pick up along the way like mutes or sustain pedals, but otherwise the instrument is self-contained.

Not so with the electric guitar.

The electric guitar is synonymous with guitar pedals – and there are a lot to choose from.

Whether you just bought a guitar for your child or a beginner yourself, I’m going to explain to you what the different kinds of guitar effects pedals are (from Acoustic Simulator to Wah), how they work, and some recommendations to get you started.

Types of Guitar Effects (Alphabetical)

In this article I’ll be covering 27 different effects that you can use on your guitar. I’ve decided to cover them in alphabetical order for easy reference.

At the end of this article are some quick tips to get you started using pedals, so be sure to read to the end to learn more.

You may notice that there are a few “effects” on here that are more like tools than effects (Tuners, Buffers, Expression, Looper). I have decided to include these even though they aren’t drastic effects because they come in pedal form and they do affect your tone as they work with other effects pedals.

You are sure to come across them in your research and it helps to understand what they do.

I have written in depth gear guides for each of these effects and will have links to those articles within each section so that you can learn even more about each effect, as well as look at reviews for each of my top recommendations.

27 Guitar Effects Pedals Explored & Explained

1. Acoustic Simulator

Acoustic simulator pedals do exactly what their name implies. They give you the ability to simulate an acoustic guitar sound using your electric guitar.

While they rarely sound as good as a real acoustic guitar, they get you close enough for use in live situations where you can only have one guitar with you.

Recommended Acoustic Guitar Simulator Pedals

2. Boost

When it comes time to do a guitar solo, you’re going to want a Boost pedal to give you some extra volume and gain. While boost pedals (aka preamp pedals) don’t have as much gain on tap as an overdrive or distortion pedal, they do give you added sustain (hold your notes for longer) without changing your tone too much.

Some opt to keep boost pedals on all the time because they like the way they make their amp sound.

Recommended Boost Pedals

3. Buffer

Buffer pedals have a simple purpose: to preserve your signal integrity across long cable runs. The more cables and pedals you use, the more high-end frequencies you’ll lose. Throw a buffer in at the beginning and/or end of your pedalboard and voila!

Your guitar sounds as good as it does plugged straight into an amplifier.

Recommended Buffer Pedals

4. Chorus

Much like the name suggests, chorus pedals work to make it sound like there is more than one guitar playing at the same time. By doubling your guitar track and modulating a short delay time, chorus pedals create a shimmering and lush modulation tone that is reminiscent of the 80’s, as this is when the effect saw its peak use.

You can learn more about what chorus pedals do in this article.

Recommended Chorus Pedals

5. Compressor

Compressor pedals work to even out the dynamic range of your guitar. This makes your quiet notes louder and your loud notes quieter. Compressors were actually first created for use by radio broadcasters so that broadcast voices could be heard well.

It turns out this very effect works fantastic for funky rhythm guitar as well as country style chicken pickin’ among other guitar techniques.

You can learn more about what compressor pedals do in this article.

Recommended Compressor Pedals

6. Delay

Delay pedals take your guitar signal and then repeat it back for a set number or repetitions/speed. The effect started off through the  use of tape machines, but now work through bucket brigade chips or digital technology. How the delay is built effects the way the delayed notes sound, from lo-fi tap to crisp and clean digital.

This is a great effect for thickening up guitar solos, slap-back effects reminiscent of the 50’s, or experimental, psychedelic repeated sounds.

Recommended Delay Pedals

7. Distortion

Distortion is one of the most fun and integral effects to use with the electric guitar. Distortion came about by cranking amplifiers to the point of breakup, which meant loud amplifiers. However, with distortion pedals you can get great, saturated, heavy tones at any volume.

With heavier clipping and more saturation, distortion pedals are higher in gain and change your tone more than overdrive does, making them great for heavy rock and metal.

Recommended Distortion Pedals

8. EQ

Equalization (aka EQ) is a process of attenuating or boosting select sound frequencies within your audio signal. This is done in recording with large mixing consoles, but can be done with your guitar using an EQ pedal. These pedals, though often overlooked by guitarists, can be the most powerful tool in your pedal collection.

They can be used to change the sounds of your pedals, boost your signal for solos, even reshape you guitar/bass to sound like another. They come in graphic and parametric form – both of which are super useful.

Recommended EQ Pedals

9. Expression Pedals

This next effect is more of a tool that works in conjunction with other effects than an effect of its own, but some are confused by how they work. Expression pedals look like a wah or volume pedal, but are connected to other effects pedals (see if any of your pedals have an EXP output on them).

They can then be used to control and “express” any parameter on the fly. This is a cool way to blend in delay signal, sweep an octave effect, or increase the rate of a tremolo using your feet.

Recommended Expression Pedals

10.  Filters

Filter effects are a wide family of effects that include auto-wah and envelope filter, but can also step into synthesizer territory with Tron Up/Down, Voice Box, Q-Filters and more. You’ve definitely heard envelope filters used by the likes of Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead), Tim Mahoney (311), and Frank Zappa to name a few.

Envelope filters work/sound like wah-wah pedals, but respond to your picking dynamics to sweep across frequency ranges.

Recommended Filter Pedals

11. Flanger

Flanger pedals are similar to chorus pedals because they both modulate delay time. However, the subtle differences in delay time modulation can create completely different effects. Flangers are often set to create a Doppler effect or the sound of a whirling jet engine, whooshing the highest of high end frequencies to the lowest of low end frequencies.

This modulation effect can be used on guitar, as well as on entire song mixes to add dimension.

Recommended Flanger Pedals

12. Fuzz

Fuzz was the first type of effect pedal ever created with the Maestro Fuzz Tone. It completely obliterates your tone beyond the range of overdrive, even distortion. Fuzz pedals come in many shapes, sizes, and sounds, so make sure you do your research before picking one out.

While they all heavily distort, dare I say obliterate, your guitar tone in the best way possible, some sound smooth, while others sound chaotic. There are even fuzz pedals with an octave effect, known as Octavia, that Jimi Hendrix made famous.

Recommended Fuzz Pedals

13. Harmonizer

If you think octave pedals are cool, wait until you try a harmonizer pedal. Harmonizers are like a more  sophisticated octave pedal, as they can layer just about any interval on top of the note you’re playing. Some are even polyphonic or can track based on the  scale you’re playing. 

Most harmonizers have a slight organ-like quality to them, but combined with distortion can really thicken up your sound in a way only another guitarist can match.

Recommended Harmonizer Pedals

14.  Looper

Looper Pedals are another pedal that is more of a tool than an effect, but it can be used from everything as a practice tool, to the cornerstone of your live performance (just ask Ed Sheeran). Looper pedals don’t have a sound of their own, typically, but rather do what their name suggests. They record and then immediately play back what your recorded as a loop.

You can then play over what you’ve looped and record layers of guitar parts. This is how some use the pedals live, or for writing songs at home, or for practicing guitar. This is a great pedal for beginners.

Recommended Looper Pedals

15. Modulation

Modulation is actually a family of effects that includes chorus, phaser, flanger, univibe and any other effect that varies/modulates a property of sound such as time or amplitude. There are some pedals that have multiple modulation effects in one pedal or that blur the lines between different modulation types.

Multi-modulation pedals are a great choice for beginners looking for experimental sounds, or professionals looking to cut down on the number of pedals on their fly rigs.

Recommended Modulation Pedals

16.  Multi-Effects

These are the big-leagues of effects pedals. Multi-effects pedals have been around for years, but have only just recently become good enough to become common place by professionals/working musicians. Some of these pedals include every effect type on this list.

Not only that, but some include amp and cabinet models, meaning that you can use these as standalone rigs for live performances and for recording.

Recommended Multi-Effects Pedals

17. Octave

Usually more straight forward and reliable than harmonizer pedals, Octave pedals add octaves above or below the note you’re playing. This effect is used to create organ tones when used in polyphonic (multiple notes) mode.

In Mono mode (one note at a time), octave pedals can be used to revoice your guitar to sound like a bass, or can be combined with an expression pedal to create sweeping Octavia tones. Some octave pedals get combined with fuzz for a really unique distortion effect.

Recommended Octave Pedals

18.  Overdrive

Overdrives are easily the most bought effect type by guitarist, and there are a lot of great overdrive pedals to choose from these days. Overdrive pedals work by clipping your signal, causing slight compression and a light distorted tone. The sounds of overdrives vary widely, which is partially why guitarists love them so much, and have been given lots of buzz-words to describe them: transparent, haunting, chiming, organic, natural, etc.

Overdrives often sound like a tube amplifier just on the edge of breakup, all the way to borderline distortion. They are a necessity for any guitarist and can really expand the possibilities of your amplifier and guitar.

Recommended Overdrive Pedals

19. Phaser

Phaser pedals fall under the class of modulation that creates a sweeping effect. Of all the modulation effects, phasers create the most synthesized and electronic sounding modulation. Prolific users of phaser pedals include Mike Einziger (Incubus), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), and Eddie Van Halen.

Phasers have also become a staple effect for outlaw country guitar and can be heard on both electric and acoustic guitars of modern country singer/songwriters.

Recommended Phaser Pedals

20. Reverb

Once reserved to spring tanks in tube amplifiers, Reverb pedals allow guitarists to make their guitar sound like it’s being played in just about any space imaginable. Reverb sounds like an echo, similar to the kind you would hear when you clap your hands in a tunnel, a church, a hall, even a cave.

Spring reverbs are the most popular and have been used on countless records,  creating an artificial ring or dripping ambience that ended up in Fender amplifiers early on.

Reverbs these days can have octave effects, modulation and more added to them for greater effect.

Recommended Reverb Pedals

21.  Synthesizer

I bet when you hear the word Synthesizer, you probably think about keyboard with a bunch of knobs on them. However, synthesizers don’t have to be played just through keyboards. Guitars, and especially bass guitar, sound amazing through synthesizer pedals.

Sounds can range from growly and distorted to smooth and ethereal. Synthesizer pedals can be mono or polyphonic, and are only limited by your own creativity. These are the ultimate pedal for the creatively curious and ambitious.

Recommended Synthesizer Pedals

22.  Tremolo

Tremolo is another effect, like overdrive and reverb, that has its roots in tube amplifiers.  Tremolo pedals work by modulating the amplitude of your guitar, creating a drop and return in volume over and over again. Some liken this to the sound of a helicopter, but you can get a gist of what tremolo does by speaking into a rotating fan.

The amplitude can come in many different wave lengths, which gives the tremolo its character, including sin, square, triangle, even random wave lengths.

Recommended Tremolo Pedals

23. Tuner

Tuner pedals aren’t effects pedals, but they are by far the most important pedal on your board. They make sure that every string on your guitar and every not you play is in tune so that you can play along to recordings and other musicians.

No matter how many cool effects you have on your board, it won’t sound good if it’s out of tune.

Recommended Tuner Pedals

24.  Univibe

Univibe pedals are one of the most unique sounding modulation effects. It shares similarities with vibrato, chorus, and phasers, but it has a flare all to its own because it uses photocells to do its modulations. What results is a really organic, pulsing, trippy effect that Jimi Hendrix favored immediately.

This effect was used all over Pink Floyd’s album “Dark Side of the Moon” and is the ideal pedal for psychedelic rock.

Recommended Univibe Pedals

25. Vibrato

Vibrato is the sibling to chorus. The only thing that separates vibrato pedals from chorus pedals is their wet/dry ratio. As soon as you blend in any dry signal to vibrato, you get what we know as chorus. Vibrato can be a much more intense effect, since not including the dry signal means you can hear the time modulation at its fullest, creating a warbly, even sea sick effect.

Vibrato is often used to emulate a warped vinyl record sound as well.

Recommended Vibrato Pedals

26. Volume

Volume pedals are quite simple in their design – just rock a foot lever back to reduce volume, forward to increase volume. It’s essentially like having a volume pot from your guitar sitting at your feet. While they can be handy on stage for shutting your volume off between guitar changes, they are much more fun for what are known as volume swells.

Turn on a delay and an overdrive for some sustain, play a chord on your guitar, and then rock the pedal forward. The attack becomes lost, and all you hear is the swell of a lush guitar chord.

Recommended Volume Pedals

27. Wah

All you have to do to understand what a Wah pedal does is say its name over and over. Wah pedals are an expression pedal effect that you can think of as like a tone control with a foot lever attached. Roll your heel back for darker, less clear tones. Roll the pedal forward to get bright, high end frequencies with low-end roll off.

This pedal has been used in car chase soundtracks and funk music for decades, as it can add extra dimension to percussive string strumming.

Recommended Wah Pedals

Effects Pedals Basics

What are effects pedals and how do you use them?

Without getting too technical, effects pedals are essentially circuits housed within an enclosure that alter your guitar signal. They have external controls that let you set up how you want them to affect your sound. These pedals are then typically set at your feet, sometimes on what’s called a pedalboard, and you turn them on and off with your feet.

To use an effects pedal, you use a ¼” cable to connect your guitar to the input jack of the effects pedal. You then run another ¼” cable from the output jack of the pedal to input of your amplifier, which then amplifies your guitar signal and disperses your sound through speakers.

This is the most fundamental and basic way that you can hook up and use pedals with your guitar. There are a lot of other signal routing options that we can dive into, but for the sake of this beginner article, this is the basic setup.

If you decide to use more than one effects pedal, the order that you place pedals will become important. Even still, you’re basically just placing all of your pedals between your guitar and your amplifier.

Picking Out Guitar Pedals

After reading this list, you may find yourself overwhelmed with all the choices there are. If you are new to guitar pedals, check out this article on picking out your first pedal.

My main advice for choosing guitar pedals is to have an idea of what you want to sound like, or what you want the pedal to achieve for you. If you want to play heavy metal, you’re going to need a distortion pedal. If you’re looking to play country guitar, you’re going to need a compressor.

Then again, sometimes it’s fun to get a pedal because it puts you into a new frame of reference with the guitar. Pedals are great tools for inspiration.

Don’t worry so much about hype or price – just get what works in your budget.

Most importantly, don’t worry about getting all the pedals. At least not right away. The most important thing is to enjoy your playing and to get confident with your own fingers and the instrument that you have in your hands.

Further Reading: